An Oscar Wilde ghost story? I’m already sold! But it’s what they’ve done with it that really counts. Tall Stories’ revamped production of The Canterville Ghost is a spectacular homage to illusion and stage magic that carries the spirit of Wilde’s humour through a charming and enchanting series of tricks, gags, and songs. It’s a show that wears its heart on its sleeve, deftly achieving its goal of bringing to life the wonders of the music hall tradition for a 21st century audience, and unfolding a warm and bittersweet commentary on the nature of storytelling.

Credit: Tobias Dobrzynski

We begin with a pianist (emphasis on the ‘t’ — there’s no prudishness here): the grand and deep-toned Steve ‘Sublime’ Watts, who opens the show with a suspenseful ditty and the first glimmer of match-fire — an ongoing metaphor for the shortness and brilliance of life. The three ‘performers’ of the play are introduced, bursting from behind the main red curtain with all the playful charm and facial dexterity of the three young tricksters of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ Much of The Canterville Ghost resonates with a Burtonesque delight in childlike Gothic, and the treatment of the spooky supernatural is consistently and profoundly silly.

Interspersed between the chapters of Wilde’s tale, in which a hilariously ineffectual ghost is hounded by the unflappably upbeat new owners of his haunted house, each of the youngsters takes a turn at performing their own particular art. Magic, ventriloquism, a communion with the dead: these all demonstrate the stagecraft of the cast while playing with the tropes of much-loved Victorian set pieces, breathing fresh energy into familiar tricks and keeping the sense of theatricality and playfulness bouncing from scene to scene. The pure wonderment of staged illusions is palpable from the off, with magic sticks becoming cloths, objects floating mid-air, and the entire cast eventually all disappearing from the stage. If there were a couple of moments where the strings became visible, the bountiful charisma of the cast let us fully into their game, making the audience even more complicit in the willing suspension of reality.

Credit: Tobias Dobrzynski

I could extol the lyrical delights and captivating tenderness of Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw’s music, the show-stealing polish of Matt Jopling’s foul-mouthed marionette, or the quick-wittedness of Katie Tranter and Callum Patrick Hughes’ interactions with the audience in the second half — but this would be to focus too much on the individual parts, when much of the direction’s skill comes in how well-unified and consistently alive they are. The transitions are incredibly smooth, the story switching expertly between layers of fiction, and the whole concept ties together so neatly with the final plea to remember the wonder of magic, even after it’s been explained away by the cold light of day. This closing number underscores a Shakespearean sense of the theatre fading from view, setting us up for a beautifully clever curtain call that made my toes tingle.

Credit: Tobias Dobrzynski

The Canterville Ghost is like a family show for adults. It breaks down these distinctions while confidently bringing the stylistic and technical brilliance of vaudeville to a story already bursting with wit and wordplay, and the whole thing sparked a generous note of pure joy. It’s the kind of theatre that puts play first and foremost, and keeps the flame — of life, of magic, of theatre — well and truly alight.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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